Rochester Media Acknowledges World War I Social Media Day by Honoring the Horse Named Tess

A century ago – on April 6, 1917 – the United States entered World War I. Today, in towns across the nation, memorials stand in honor of local men who served in the conflict. American Legion posts, like the Homer Wing post in Rochester, bear the names of some of those who gave their lives. But there is one Rochester hero of World War I who has no granite monument to commemorate service during the war. Her name was Tess.

The Parke-Davis Company, a prominent Detroit pharmaceutical firm, operated the Parkedale Biological Farm just east of the village of Rochester at the time. The Parkedale facility grew medicinal plants and housed a variety of animals used to produce lifesaving serum for humans. At the time of World War I, the federal government awarded a contract to Parke-Davis to produce tetanus antitoxin for the War Department.

Horses at Parkedale - Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Horses at Parkedale – Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

During the early years of the war, British soldiers suffered a high infection rate with deadly tetanus, owing to the manure-rich fields in France and Belgium through which their trench lines were cut. Deep tissue wounds caused by mines and mortars were particularly vulnerable to tetanus in this environment. The mortality rate from the infection was about 80 percent. Medical science was at a turning point in that era – just beginning to act upon the realization that microorganisms caused infectious disease. The cutting-edge prevention for tetanus at the time was an antitoxin produced from horse serum.

The Parkedale facility near Rochester was part of that leading technology. At the peak of its work on tetanus and other antitoxins, Parkedale stabled about 600 horses for the production of lifesaving serum. In May 1917, just a month after the United States entered the war in Europe, Tess came to Parkedale to join the fight against tetanus.

Tess – then four years old – was a strong, healthy bay mare. The Parkedale scientists found that she suited the tetanus antitoxin program better than any other horse with which they had worked. Tess quickly became the star of the show. After being injected with the toxin, she produced 1,023 quarts of antitoxin that yielded many thousands of doses of lifesaving vaccine. The first two years of Tess’s production went exclusively to the U.S. military to protect American soldiers from the infection that had been plaguing the British forces.

Parkedale - Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Parkedale – Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

On average, the productive span for a tetanus horse was about two years. In contrast, Tess produced antitoxin for 11 years, with no loss of vigor. Dr. Robert H. Wilson of Parkedale described her stamina this way during an interview in 1932, “Probably a hundred horses were put on the [tetanus] treatment at the same time as Tess, and they all died years ago. Why Tess should continue year after year to produce an active serum and the others not, is one of the unfathomable mysteries of science. We’ve had hundreds like her in age and appearance, but there was never another like Tess.”

In 1928, when Parke-Davis finally retired Tess from the tetanus program, she was celebrated for her service to her country. The American Legion Homer Wing Post in Rochester adopted her as an official mascot of sorts and built a float to carry her in the Pontiac Armistice Day parade. Newspapers around the country told her story and made her somewhat famous; a syndicated feature dubbed her “the most valuable horse that ever lived.” Tess remained at Parkedale for the rest of her days, loafing in the pasture and eating the best oats in a pampered existence that was her due after long years of service.

In May 1935, Tess died at Parkedale at the age of 22. Her obituary ran on the front page of the Detroit Free Press and read, “Tess established the world record for the production of the lockjaw serum, a record that will probably stand for years. No other horse ever worked as well in the interest of science. Because of all the antitoxin she produced, it is a safe conjecture that the serum went into use in every hospital in Detroit … And every soldier who ever got a shot of A.T.S. in the arm during the war had the feeling, when he looked at Tess, that there was a horse to whom he might owe his life.”

The obituary continued with a quote from Parkedale’s managing director of research, who said, “Tess was a remarkable horse in many ways. She had a kind disposition. She grew playful in her old age and became the pet of all the employees on the farm. And she certainly got plenty of attention from prominent visitors.”

Parke-Davis is now PAR Pharmaceuticals

Parke-Davis is now PAR Pharmaceuticals

By all accounts, the employees of Parkedale looked with heavy hearts on Tess’s empty stall in Barn #1. Accordingly, they buried her by the flagpole in front of the barn, a fitting tribute for a remarkable animal who had served her country well. It is said that there was once a marker on her grave, but that apparently was lost along with Barn #1, which was razed some years ago. Today, Tess’s unmarked resting place lies on the grounds of the Par Pharmaceutical’s property at 870 Parkdale Road. In this centennial year of the U.S. entrance into World War I and Tess’s arrival in Rochester, it is appropriate to remember her service.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Annette Kingsbury says

    Somebody build that horse a monument!

  2. Patricia Kane says

    ‘Unmarked” and razed—that’s a shame. The horse deserved the respect and recognition even in death. The grave should be located and the marker replaced or the the old one found and placed-. If not, on those grounds a large statue in the likeness of Tess and plaque- should be placed. Park Davis should have stepped up years ago—disappointing.

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